Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

General’s Coup Attempt Prompts Evacuation from Guinea-Bissau


At the crack of dawn on June 7, 1998, Ambassador Peggy Blackford woke to sounds of gunfire outside and someone banging on her door. Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau, was under siege by army general Ansumane Mane and other dissidents in the national army. Blackford recalls how she and approximately fifty other people, including embassy staff and U.S. citizen tourists and missionaries, sheltered in the U.S. embassy while shells fell around them.

It was a week before the Portuguese Embassy was able to arrange a freighter to get people from Bissau to Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The freighter carried about 3000 people of different nationalities to safety. Through extensive coordination with the American defense attache in Dakar and others who were in charge of the rescue mission, all American citizens in Guinea-Bissau were evacuated safely by June 13, leaving only five American diplomats (one of whom was Peggy Blackford). The State Department contracted a river oil tanker to pick up the remaining diplomats on Sunday, June 14, 1998, which transported them to Banjul, the capital of The Gambia. Blackford recalls this successful rescue mission in her oral history. Blackford had a distinguished career in the Foreign Service serving in Kenya, Brazil, Zimbabwe, France, Mali, and finally Guinea-Bissau. The interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on November 28, 2016.

Read Peggy Blackfords’s full oral history HERE

Excerpts:
“He totally failed to impress us; but what we did not recognize was that he was revered by many in the military who held him to be a hero.”

Thoughts on General Mane: “We learned that the chief of staff of the army, General Mane, fired for his part in an arms smuggling scandal, had decided not to go quietly. Illiterate and unable to speak either Portuguese or French, he had been held under house arrest for some time and was little known to expatriates. I had met him once when the Deputy Commander of EUCOM (European Command) who was responsible for Africa came to visit with Joe Wilson who was then POLAD (Foreign Policy advisor) to EUCOM. Our interview with General Mane was painful. When asked how many people were in the Army, Mane conferred with several aides but never did come up with a number. He totally failed to impress us; but what we did not recognize was that he was revered by many in the military who held him to be a hero in the bitter struggle that freed his country from Portugal.”

“…refugees spent a harrowing eight hours on the dock while shells went off all around them.”

Evacuating American Citizens: “We continued to explore every possibility we could to evacuate and on Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning, the Portuguese Embassy called to tell us that they had found a Portuguese freighter to take refugees to Dakar . . . Tuesday evening we moved almost everyone from the compound down to the port area and told other American citizens to report to the dock first thing in the morning with lots of water. The Portuguese assured us that they were working with the rebels and the government to declare a ceasefire so that the expats could get out safely. Unfortunately, this ceasefire never occurred. Instead the refugees spent a harrowing eight hours on the dock while shells went off all around them. Finally, the majority of Americans and others who we had accepted responsibility for—some 300 people from a dozen nations—led by AID Director McKay and Peace Corps Director Brian Cavanagh, boarded the ship for a grueling 24-hour trip to Dakar, Senegal. It must have been a horror.”

“…when we hit the open sea, we pitched and yawed to such an extent that we had to put in between two islands and spend the night”

Leaving Guinea-Bissau one last time: The Department had hired a small fishing boat to pick us up. Its greatest virtue seemed to be that it had a radio so that we could arrange our pickup. Of course, the radio stopped working and instead of a fishing boat we were met at an isolated dock on Sunday morning, June 14, and picked up by a dinghy from a small tanker—a river tanker which delivered diesel fuel up river and which as it turned out was empty. We steamed the 40 miles or so down the river from Bissau but when we hit the open sea, we pitched and yawed to such an extent that we had to put in between two islands and spend the night. . . The captain and his crew could not have been nicer . . . The crew fed us and we steamed toward Banjul. We were greeted upon arrival by the press, the Gambian Foreign Minister, and of course, Ambassador Gerald Scott and his wife. Gerald and his wife housed me, the rest of us were parceled out to other Embassy residences.”

Drafted by Neil Nabar

 

Table of Contents Highlights:

Education

    BA in International Relations, Syracuse University                                                         1963                                                                           

Entered Foreign Service                                                                                                 1972

     Nairobi, Kenya – Budget & Fiscal Officer                                                                           1974-1976

     Washington, DC, Office of Political Military Affairs – Executive Director                  1987-1989

     Bamako, Mali – Deputy Chief of Mission                                                                           1992- 1995

     Bissau, Guinea-Bissau – Chief of Mission                                                                          1995-1998

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